Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the government of Comoros to reinstate two senior journalists - news director Binti Mhadjou and editor in chief Moinadjoumoi Papa Ali - who have been suspended from this Indian Ocean archipelago's public radio and TV broadcaster, ORTC, over their allegedly biased coverage of a strike.
Mhadjou and Papa Ali, who had only recently been hired to fill these posts, learned of their suspensions from a fellow journalist's Facebook post on 30 January. The decision was taken by the information minister - who ran the ORTC in the past - after attending a cabinet meeting.
Mhadji told RSF that the government thought that the ORTC had given "too much time to the strikers" - the merchants who have been protesting against recent hikes in custom duties and a lack of transparency in the way duties are charged. No grounds or explanation for their suspension is given in the official note, which RSF has seen. Two terse letters, simply stating that there suspensions were to take immediate effect, were sent to the ORTC's director-general, who was abroad at the time. No notification of the suspension was sent to either of the two journalists, who were given no chance to defend themselves.
Mhadji and Djumwa were appointed to these key positions after the ORTC decided to reflect all viewpoints and provide more balanced news coverage during the current parliamentary elections. Two weeks before their suspension, the ORTC interviewed the opposition's spokesman and another member of the opposition, Ngazidja island's former governor. This was virtually the first time in months that anyone from the opposition had been interviewed on the ORTC.
"This completely unwarranted sanction testifies to the very close control that the Comorian government still wants to exercise over the public TV broadcaster, which had only just begun providing more independent coverage and a diversity of viewpoints," said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa Desk."A public service media cannot just be a governmental public relations outlet. We call on the authorities to rescind these suspensions and allow journalists and media outlets to operate in a free and independent manner, especially as parliamentary elections are currently under way in Comoros."
The Comorian Journalists' Collective issued a statement condemning "this manifest determination to crush the momentum for opening up the national TV broadcaster to more diverse opinions."
The authorities have repeatedly targeted journalists and media since the 2018 constitutional referendum that allowed President Azali Assoumani to run successfully for another term in 2019. RSF has registered an unprecedented number of press freedom violations - including cases of intimidation, physical attacks, suspensions of journalists and censorship of newspapers - in the past two years.
Ali Mbaé, a reporter for the newspaper Masiwa Komor, and Oubeidillah Mchangama, a blogger, are still subject to the judicial control measures that a judge imposed on 13 January, two days after they were arrested while on their way to cover an opposition rally. Pending trial on a charge of "disturbing public order," they are still banned from leaving the country and posting on social networks, and must appear before a judge every week.
Comoros has fallen 12 places in RSF's World Press Freedom Index since 2017 and is now ranked 56th out of 180 countries.